Robert Mezey, a Fresno Figure in the Free Speech Movement, Dies at 85

By Community Alliance staff

Robert Mezey, award-winning poet, professor and translator, died April 25 from pneumonia at a nursing home in Bowie, Md. He was at 85.

Mezey, described as having a “mercurial” and rebellious personality, at 16 entered Kenyon College to study with poet John Crowe. He dropped out of school after two years and joined the army, but he was discharged early. He then attended the University of Iowa, where he obtained his B.A. In 1960, Mezey published his debut poetry book, The Love Maker, and later received a fellowship at Stanford.

In 1967, Mezey was a professor at Fresno State. In November of that year, he participated in a panel discussion about marijuana where he stated that it was “perfectly harmless” to use it. Mezey admitted using the drug on and off for over a decade and criticized the drug laws in place as “insane, probably unconstitutional.”

He was fired. This sparked a debate about free speech and faculty rights.

Professors started to get organized to defend their rights and to organize a fund-raiser to help Mezel. The Fresno Free College Foundation (FFCF) was born.

“The Fresno Free College Foundation was created in the spring of 1968 by a group of professors at the California State University, Fresno, to raise legal funds to defend the academic freedom of their colleague, the poet Robert Mezey, who was fired from his teaching position because of his exercise of his right to free speech. In its formation, the Foundation also adopted broader purposes to include the encouragement and promotion of intellectual and cultural growth in institutions of higher education and in the wider community.” (https://www.fresnofreecollegefoundation.org/history.html)

The FFCF got involved in other activities and later established the KFCF 88.1 FM radio station in Fresno (www.kfcf.org).

Mezey continued his itinerant life, finding teaching jobs in many colleges and publishing his rebellious poetry. In 1976, Pomona College offered him a position as professor. He stayed there until his retirement in 2000.

A good Spanish-speaking person, Mezel and his colleague Dick Barnes embarked on a long journey of translating Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. After years of dedicated work, they couldn’t get the English-language rights. It is believed that this translation and others still circulate among friends.

If true, Mezel couldn’t feel happier.

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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